July 22, 2014

sacred mystery

[This is a post I had in my drafts, from June.]

It's a broad, blue-skied evening on the Canadian prairies. The sun is making its delayed summer exit. The air is crisp. Birds sing in surround-sound. Bushes line the streets; their tiny yellow blossoms fragrance the aisles of the small town. The edge of the world is just on the other side of the town school, and I find it almost accidentally, on my evening walk.

Seating myself on the dirty edge of an open field, I cannot see even one human. (For someone freshly arrived from Asia, a human-less landscape is highly unusual). I hear only prairie birds and see only fields, and dirt, and the houses on the edge of town. The sun angles over stubble left in the fields. Dreams billow in my mind like the cottony pileup of dandelion seeds. Thoughts amble down semi-smooth grooves of fertile prairie soil. Sometimes I need open air to free and see my thoughts. The thud, grind and scraping of living fades into the distance on this prairie night, and I'm up close with the quiet of God.

Have you met one of those people who says he won't believe in God until he can make complete sense of Him? The kind who refuses to believe in an infinite God unless first he can wrap his finite brain around Him? Never mind that he eats food, whether or not he has a complete comprehension of how that food was grown or will be digested. I suppose he also trusts the car or train that carries him to work without fully understanding every fine detail of its operation. But when it comes to "rel!gion", he requires complete comprehension before he believes in Him. As if God, if He is who He says He is, could be summarized in pamphlet or a half-day Saturday course.

The truth is, that life is full of mysteries, small and big. Every time you look around, you can see something you don't quite understand. Tonight, I don't understand why that dandelion tuft drifts in an unusual pattern. Or why a mosquito flies this course and not that one. Why this leaf is fuzzy and that one smooth. Why I can battle with beautiful words for weeks and then find they come tumbling into my head so inconveniently when I am without pen and paper in an open field surrounded by earth. Life raises lots of questions, and fewer answers.

Friends, we should value mystery. The eternal God must grieve, seeing a twenty- or thirty-something made of already-dying cells demand an explanation of some minute circumstance from the Everlasting One—"or else!" Who are we to make such demands? Learn to put your hand over your mouth, with Job. Mystery is sacred because it reminds us that we're not done knowing yetsomething very important for arrogance-prone humans to remember. It takes humility to admit to not knowing.
 

When we date, we try to sleuth the mystery that is another human life. We ask lots of questions, and wisely so. But sometimes, we hit a wall in our comprehension of the man-woman relationship. That's completely normal. The wisest king who ever lived said he could not understand the way of a man with a woman. Paul used the word mystery in describing how two could assimilate into one and picture that greater Union. Maybe it's that balance of the known and the mysterious that keeps us coming back, and back again, for more.

My man and I can talk for hours, and we know so much about one another. Sometimes he finishes my sentences because he knows where I'm headed. He told me recently that it makes him glad that he's learning to anticipate what I might want—to ask me if I want more watermelon, because he sees the want in my eyes before it gets to my tongue. But he also told me once, that no matter how many hours we've talked, I still hold some mystery to him. And that that mystery is part of what he likes about me. 

My tendency is to want to ask questions, to probe, to poke. Or to completely divulge everything. But I let his comment about mystery lie on my ears; I like how it sounds. It ties with the virtues of feminine modesty and masculine conquering of the unknown. Mystery is sacred, and somehow it pulls us together. 

God is comprehensible, on one level. Utterly incomprehensible on another. Knowable enough for us to trust Him. Unknowable enough for us to stand in awe. He is present in the hand of a carpenter's son healing a sick child, yet He is as mysterious as a dark Mount Sinai covered in smoke. His Book can be grasped by a child, yet an adult can spend his lifetime (and an eternity to come) wrestling with the finer details of that story.

Elizabeth Elliot wrote these words about a man, but they could be written of God, too:
"He is free, and you must always reverence this freedom. There are questions you have no right to ask, matters into which you must not probe, and secrets you must be content never to know.... there are things a man cannot and ought not to give. The deep calls only to God."
And about your husband, Elliot writes, "...you must accept the mystery of [your spouse's] personhood....Your [spouse] is known fully only to God, and stands in a sense alone before Him.... Ultimately he is God's man."

God and men: analyzable, but only to a point. 
Knowable but yet unknowable to women.

As women, we often pick things apart with our words: we dissect, we explore and we want details. It's that constant need to know and discuss that can exhaust our God and our men. Sometimes it's needed, but not usually to the extreme in which we pursue it.

Words can be beautiful, but sometimes wisdom tells us
to quell our tongues, and
let our mouths stand agape at His wonders.

To be humble enough to admit that there are some things we can't understand.

To be still and
let the summer wind blow and
feel his arm around you and
need no explanation.  

June 17, 2014

tentative ten-year-olds

It's a sunny day, and I'm back in the land of pet dogs, quiet streets and clean skies. I'm on a break from Asia, visiting friends in North America. As you know, friends are always changing, but changes seem more obvious when you've been away for a while.  

I notice that some of the biggest changes are in my littlest friends. One intelligent little ten-year-old has been my friend for at least five years. In times past, he told the wildest stories, kept me laughing with off-the-wall comments, sat next to me at family gatherings, and always tried to steal me away to jump on the trampoline after lunch. In a word, he was vivacious.

But he's ten now, and taller than ever. When I saw him last week, he didn't say much to me. His usual zest was strangely missing.

The second time he saw me, he took me to "his" lake (down the long route, through mosquito-filled woods) to a broken-down dock. The woods are where he feels comfortable, looking for birds' nests, catching frogs and confidently dispensing nature facts. He told me how Grade Three passed slowly, and was filled with adventures. But Grade Four passed quickly—he explained sagely, "that's what happens when you get older."

But the third time he saw me, he stretched his thin arms around me for a hug. It was informal and unpretentious, a natural extension of our long-time friendship. It was almost like old times, with some new times mixed in.

Ten is quite different than five.
Less carefree, less trusting. Loving at ten might look different
than it did at five—but it matters just as much. Don't we all wish for friends who will love us in our gangly years, in the transitions and messiness and questioning of growth? We want friends who will meet us where we're comfortable, and eventually care take us to where we aren't. We want friends who are content to lie on an old boat dock and wait for us as we poke around. Friends who won't think we're crazy when we stir up ant nests with long sticks or insist on balancing on a railing just to see if we can. Friends who will put away their smart phones and be fully engaged in the moment. Friends who will listen before they speak, and when they speak, use wise words. Who will rebuke us when it's needed, but encourage us when it's not. We want people who will keep getting to know the ever-evolving "us" and love us anyway—in a way that points toward Him.

This morning I visited another friend, who is a few decades older and wiser than my little ten-year-old man. We met in a comfort zone, too, of her home. We ate breakfast in the dining room like proper friends might do, but then we also stood in the kitchen and soaped up a pile of leftover Father's Day dishes like real friends do. (Families leave messes and sorting and cleaning them up takes time.) We chat just as easily at the sink as we do on the sofa. Four hours later, the dishes are washed and dried and we're drinking tea. There is still so much to say and discover, and I leave with more conversation still waiting inside me, and some encouragement and insight gained.

Things have changed so much since we met. We've travelled to and lived on different continents. We've gained and lost: jobs, weight, friends, hopes and dreams. But mostly we've grown: as individuals, as friends and as Followers. As I listen to my friend speak, I hear a woman who is deeper than most, and wiser than ever. She's not the same woman I met five years ago either—she's growing up in Him. We've seen each others' soul stretch marks and still found beauty in each other: God is expanding us to fill us with more of Himself.

In our hearts we all know what it is like to be that tentative ten-year-old, wondering if this old friendship will hold our new weight. We wonder if our friends will be okay with our gangly parts or if they're going to laugh. If we can still be informal and 
wash dishes and 
jump on trampolines and 
breathe out things we haven't figured out or 
we've never told anyone....

Or if we need to confine ourselves to the parlour 
and drink perfectly-steeped Earl Grey
from delicate china cups
and only talk about our successes....

Loving at ten might look different than it did at five—
but it matters just as much.

 

May 25, 2014

the sewage of sin

Our land is dry. Outside of a freak rainstorm with high winds, and a few unusual rain sprinkles, we have not had rain in many months. The roads are dusty and a slight gale kicks it all up. The top of everything catches filth. If the floor hasn't been mopped in the last 24 hours, my bare feet sense the dust. This corner of Asia has taught me what parched means.

Which is why it stood out as unusual when my auto bounced through a monsoon-like puddle near our office building one morning. I saw some birds happily splashing in what must have felt to them like a lake. They flapped their grey feathers. One dipped his beak in the puddle, as if delighted to find such a large and luxurious birdbath in the middle of the hottest and driest season.

Of course, I wondered at the source of their bathing water. It didn't take long to see what was feeding the birdbath. From around the edges of a manhole cover, greyish-brown water gurgled out. The water was sewage, pouring over the already-filthy dirt street, lined in garbage and construction debris.

As my auto driver navigated the puddle that morning, I thought about those commonplace pigeons basking in grey sewage. I wondered: do they know that across the city there is a large, man-made lake, which, while it might be a bit dirty, is a real treat compared to sewage? Better yet, do they know that in some parts of the world, other birds (which are in no way superior to them) splash in pristine, glacier-fed lakes? Do they know what's out there? If they knew the options that exist, would they be so happily flitting through grey, watered-down excrement...the very thing that will kill them?

And it was like the Father told me: you are that pigeon with your face in the sewage, Julie. When you choose sin over righteousness, you're choosing sewage over glacier-fed lakes. You're holding close to yourself something which, in the hot season of life's trials might feel like instant release, or easy pleasure, but it will ultimately kill you. As Paul wrote to the Romans, in 7:11, "Sin...killed me." The Father reminded me, sin is sewage.

But what is sin? Some people think of the "seven deadly sins". But Susanna Wesley penned a brave and broad definition for sin, which convicts me every time I read it:
"Whatever weakens your reason,
impairs the tenderness of your conscience,
obscures your sense of God,
takes off your relish for spiritual things,
whatever increases the authority of the body over the mind,
that thing is sin to you,
however innocent it may seem in itself."
For me, it helps to list a specific sin, and remind myself that that thought or act is killing me:
Gossip...will kill me.
Laziness...will kill me.
Prayerlessness...will kill me.
Lust...will kill me.
Bitterness...will kill me.

Sewage, will kill me. Is killing me. Remember the happily ignorant pigeons.

C. S. Lewis is known for saying, "We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea." Lewis speaks from the perspective of the joy that is missed when we don't accept God's good gifts, and I speak from the disaster that is imminent if we continue to cherish sin. What is at stake is not only that we might trade a holiday for a slum, but that ignorance of or willful disobedience to God's design kills us. That is not to say it causes us to lose our eternal salvation, but...
It kills our spiritual fellowship with God.
It makes us unable to bear good fruit.
It renders us useless to Him and powerless for spiritual battle.

God says sin kills.
"In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
"For if you live according to the flesh you will die; 
but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

The world, the flesh and the devil sell us the idea that sin will not kill. 
"You will not surely die." 

Every decision comes down to who we trust. Who we believe. Will we believe what He says about sin, whether or not we see the long-term consequences or understand the why

Perhaps you, like me, have trouble forsaking those sins that don't seem to have negative effects at present. Perhaps you think of sin lightly. Your sin was and is so terrible that the only sufficient payment for it was the violent death of the only Son of God. Thomas Kelly addresses this in a song that is relatively new to me:
Ye who think of sin but lightly,
Nor suppose the evil great,
Here may view its nature rightly,
Here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the Sacrifice appointed!
See Who bears the awful load!
’Tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed,
Son of Man, and Son of God.
Killing sin is serious business. John Owen wrote, 
Do you mortify? Do you make it your daily work? Be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you. 
A trial is never so hot that bathing in sewage is a good idea. No matter the short-term relief that it seems to provide, fix this in your mind: sin kills me. Our insistance on drinking in sewage proves that we "don't know what's out there" when it comes to our relationship with God. And we can never begin to delight in a holy lifestyle if we don't actively flee sin and fly toward righteous J'esus. Let's get our faces out of the gutters of sin: He's calling us to the abundant life of Living Water, on the mountain of God.


When desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin;
and sin, when it is full grown, brings forth death.
James

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy;
I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
John

May 17, 2014

one

Every Sunday morning, a few of us used to sit on a unpainted, slatted bench in a four-foot-wide dirt alley. Behind us was a bare brick wall, with cement dripping from its seams. Before us was a fence or a wall (I can't remember which) that divided the chruch property from the neighbour's open yard. Ants crawled by and the temperatures were warm. It was a bit of an unlikely classroom, where I told stories to only a small audience.

I'd talk about the narrow way and the broad way, using an old curriculum with outdated inked graphicsgluttony was illustrated with a pig, and lying with a snake. I tried to liven things up, teaching parables with cotton balls for sheep, cheap beads in place of the pearl of great price, and plastic vegetable sacks for nets.

Three or four girls attended semi-regularly. A tall, mild-mannered one of African heritage, whose parents showed no interest in sending her to learn. A lighter-skinned one, with a shy manner, fuzzy hair, little education and a passel of younger siblings in tow. And then there was the one I remember best: she was thin, with wide cheek bones and hair as straight as palm leaves. She was bright. And she was faithful. Her father would drink himself stupid on the weekends; sensual music would play loud and late in her neighbourhood. But nearly every Sunday I would mark her "present" on the attendance chart. Hair freshly washed; smile in place. Ready to learn.

I moved away, for college, and my parents would tell me stories sometimes about my young student-turned-friend. She was still coming, and growing. She was excelling in school, too (which is quite something, in a impoverished area where some were illiterate). She was taking responsibility in the congregation. Five years later, I returned, and she stood at the front of some rows of benches, holding up the story book, smiling and teaching. 

I think about those years. I think about her. And I remember that the Father gave me one. One known fruit that remains, to this day. Isn't He good, to encourage me like that?



Life has taken me through various stages, and most of them have been fairly clearly deliniated by a geographical move or a change of employment. There was the year at a college with deep rock gorges, autumn glory, and good teaching. There was the internship where I learned deep truth that I still apply daily and made the best of friends. There was more college, more and more work, moving to Asia, and here I am. As I look back, I realize that in nearly every season, He has encouraged my feeble heart by giving me one. Though sometimes I don't know it until I move on. And in some cases, I still don't know if the seed found any good soil.

Once my one was from a confused family, you know the kind, where she hardly knew her surname. She was hungry for affection and needing a friend. Another time, my one was really two: in my part-time coffee shop job years, He gave me a mother-daughter duo. They'd camp out in the coffee shop in the evenings. Mom and I would talk about life, death, value and meaning, while I wiped counters and chapped my hands from so much washing. The daughter ate sweets they bought from behind the glass, while mom was caught up in conversation.

In one season, my coworker and his wife became my friends. They were immigrants, and my sister and I fed them what I now realize was probably a less-than-impressive chicken holiday dinner in my poorly furnished house. Somehow they appreciated it anyway. Later my brother became their friend too, and we ate dumplings and shared life. They showed a lot of interest in us, though not much in our message. Then they moved away....  A few years later, he messaged me to say he had found what we had. "Now I understand...." God didn't have to let me know, how his heart had changed. But He was gracious to do so.

There are one or two others that come to mind. But not many hungry ones, really.

And perhaps that is because "narrow is the way...and few are those who find it".

Maybe it is because God Himself insinuated that seed falls on good soil only about one-fourth of the time (though when it does, it bears one hundred fold—well worth the investment).

Perhaps because I don't press and inquire and seed and water and pray as much as I should.

In any case, my ones are few but just encouraging enough for me to press on.

These days, I'm visiting with another one. The seed hit good soil, and it's obvious. She's ravenous for truth and bravely understanding the implications. She's watching truth on YouTube, snatching moments in the car to ask me important questions, and changing her habits. But some ten years ago, she was someone else's one. Her friend taught her, prayed for her, nurtured her, rebuked her. Finally my friend left her first friend, disappointing her and going on the broad path.  

Today, I get the joy of seeing a seed growing and flourishing because someone else did some toilsome seed-planting and seed-watering back when I was on another continent, against the bare brick wall, next to the noisy neighbours, a world away from Asia. And today, I can only be in Asia because local friends provided the infrastructure for me to be here. I think her growth is the result of many people's petitions. Yet more than most anyone else, I get to reap the joy of seeing the results in this one. Which reminds me that one is often the project of many.

When people who work abroad write home, they say they feel the need to impress. To give stats, to tell powerful stories. But one of the most "impressive" couples I've met sowed in parched soil for fifteen years and could not even tell of one.  (The husband's marriage proposal, if I remember correctly, was inelegantly made, on a coach bus. He said something like this: "Hey, wanna come with me to Central Asia?" She said a courageous "Yes.") They changed their lifestyles drastically. They left everything. They faced buzzing war zones with three young children....and couldn't even tell of one? How fair is that? But their story impressed me more than an expected tale of ten or one hundred, or ten thousand. Because it was real. It was raw. And they were faithful without the knowledge of one sprouted seed. I know there are many like them, on the narrow path.

You've planted one hundred seeds? 
Plant one more. 
 
You've told them one thousand times? 
Tell them one more time.

I hope, for the sake of your encouragement, you get to know of one lost coin rescued. Or two sheep brought back. But friends, "let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up." From His eternal perspective, He already sees the harvest. Someday we will, too.  

Put in one more day, every day, even if it's just for one
(And may it not just be for one, may it be for many!)


He shall see of the travail of his soul, 
and shall be satisfied: 
by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many
for he shall bear their iniquities.
— Isaiah

April 27, 2014

i don't know hot

It's hot here. My hand touches down on the dry watermelon skins at the vegetable stand; they feel unappetizingly warm. Damp burlap bags cover shallow woven baskets of cucumbers, okra and green peppers, in an attempt to keep them cool. The shop door is rolled halfway down to block the sun from hitting his produce; my head nearly collides with the low door. Everything's a little wilted here, including humans. During this season, after you try to do something, you end up not wanting to do much of anything.

It's hot here. Driving by a row of roadside shacks, I see a group of ladies chatting in the shadows of their makeshift dwellings; one of them seems to be commanding the attention of the rest. A half-clad, dark-skinned man sits in a large steel basin and splashes water over his head with a steel bowl. A dirty child licks a lime-green popsicle. In these eletricity-less homes, shade and water—and maybe popsicle vendorsare the only saviours on days when the temperatures are above 40°C.

It's hot here. The warm 5:00pm air kicks a slight breeze through the police office where I sit. It lifts the wall calendars, which bump lazily against the wall. Lazy, like all of us, in this heat. One of the calendars has the monkey god prominently on display. He's large, princely... and hairy. The other calendar has smaller graphics on holiday dates. One day is marked with a god with a blue countenance; another is labeled with a god with a marble face and pointy, kohl-lined eyes. But on the eighteenth square of this month, there is no god and no face. There are just two rough wooden posts, crossed, and draped with a fluttering strip of white linen.

The monkey calendar taps the wall, again.
The fan swirls and clicks, again.
The official checks my paperwork, again.
I wonder if the policeman knows what that faceless holiday graphic represents. "The word is near you..." but it is not "in your mouth and in your heart." There are small clues for the curious; it's on the April calendar, in the theatre, in a bookstore or two....

It was hot there. When fiery justice fell on His human body. When warm blood spilled from redemptive wounds. There was a God and there were faces there, though the calendar doesn't show them. One face crying out in anguish ("Why have You forsaken me?") and One face turned away.

Rebuked, I realize that I don't know hot. The face of the Father is turned toward me in soothing grace, because that day, on the two wooden posts, He turned His face away from His Son. He poured the heat of my transgressions on His Son, so I could stand in the shadow cast by His cross. So I would not know hot.

April 9, 2014

him and her

(How do I begin a post in which I tell you about the man I love? It's a risk, perhaps, to whisper into this open space that my heart is taken with someone. But I rest in the arms of a greater Beloved and know that "the plans of the Lord stand firm forever". So with quiet joy, I can share with you some lessons I'm learning in this season. If you could see my eyes, I think they'd be shining right now. [If you are hoping for many details about him, this post may disappoint you—except that you may know that he is both godly and gentlemanly]).

Last year, God sovereignly brought into my life a person who is like me. He has a similar heartbeat and his dreams move in the same direction as mine—something I had thought I might never find. We can talk about anything and nothing and almost everything, and somehow our minds meet and ultimately agree. I smile inside when I remember our first dress-up dinner date. After he pulled out my chair for me (much to the confusion of our local waiter, who thought it was his job to help me with my chair), we almost ordered the same thing off the many-paged menu—we truly do have so much in common, to the point that we like most of the same foods.

We're alike—in the important things, and in many of the inconsequential things, too. Every once in a while, though, there's a moment when I think, "Wow, we're actually really different." And next the thought that crosses me is, "Was I wrong, I thought we were so alike?" Then I realize that the biggest differences I find between us are often because (surprise!) he's a man, and I'm a woman. (Yes, we have one of those old-fashioned, Garden-of-Eden type relationships: one male and one female). Anyhow, those "wow-we're-different" moments require a bit of a perspective adjustment, to remember that we're supposed to be different. That it's OK. Then I remember that indeed, I like him very much, not only in spite of our differences but because of our differences.

I am not the first or the last to find gender differences confusing at times. When we talk about gender, 1 Peter 3 is one of the passages of choice. You know at least the female side of the script. It says that submission, inner beauty, gentleness, trust and quietness are qualities of a holy woman. But less often do I hear commentary on 1 Peter 3:5-6, "Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror."

Why this mention of fear? That fearful heart is the opposite of a quiet, trusting one. The opposite of submission to God (which then entails submission to a husband, should God give you or me one) is a rebellion that comes out of a heart that is fearful. Because of falsely-rooted fear, women abandon that gentle and quiet spirit that submits "as unto the Lord" and seek to rule over their men. They live with...
Fear that this creature's differences will cause me grief.
Fear that if I don't show him how it's done, it won't get done right. 
Fear that if I don't speak my mind, every time, he'll never learn.
Fear, fear, fear that is finally rooted in doubting God's design. 

It's the clay questioning the potter's workmanship: why did you make us this way? So different?
 
Compatibility is the supposed be all and end all in romantic relationships. We have this idea that our life partners should be as alike to us as possible. As I've watched the same-sex attraction crowd grow bigger and more boisterous, I think: these ladies want someone who is more alike to them than different. They don't value the difference like God does.  It doesn't surprise me that what would follow on the heels of a vehement feminist movement is a growing group of women who would seek long-term marriage-like partnerships with other women.  

When you spend your days imbibing doctrine that says that...
women are better than men, 
women are more capable than men, 
women can do anything that men can do....
remind me why you'd ever want or need a man? Let alone a man who (unlike your lesb!an partner) could leave you in the vulnerable position of motherhood, dependent on him for provision and protection? In this way I can see, through their perspective, why lesb!ans seek out female partners for themselves. Because they don't trust that God made men different for a reason, or that His creation was very good when it left His capable hands. They doubt man's capability because they firstly doubt his Maker.

Most of our problems come from Eden, from a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what happened at Eden. 
Fear says our man-woman differences are a flaw.
Trust says our man-woman differences are by design.

Elizabeth Elliot tackles women who want their men to be women, too, in Let Me Be a Woman.
Strange how easy it seems to be for some women to expect their husbands to be women, to act like women, to do what is expected of women. Instead of that they are men, they act like men, they do what is expected of men, and thus they do the unexpected. They surprise their wives by being men and some wives wake up to the awful truth that it was not, in fact, a man that they wanted after all. It was marriage, or some vague idea of marriage, which provided the fringe benefits they were looking for.... But somehow marriage has also insinuated into their cozy lives this unpredictable, unmanageable, unruly creature called a man..... Anything he does which seems to her inexplicable or indefensible she dismissed with 'Just like a man!' as though this were a condemnation or at best an excuse instead of a very good reason for thanking God. It is a man she married, after all, and she is lucky if he acts like a man....

Know your man. Know that there are things that make him different from you. His masculinity will help to explain some of them."
Even in our creation, we were literally made differently. Each man still bears the image of Adam, constructed of clay. Every woman was, thousands of years ago, whittled from the bone withdrawn from man's side. A part of him was removed to make her, and later woman was rejoined to man to provide that which was missing in him. He sang a song when he saw her; he knew she was exactly what he lacked.

Our gender differences are more than OK. They're good. Sure, they're thoroughly tarnished by the Fall (again, we must properly understand Eden's events, curses and consequences), hence the chaos that often ensues. I've had more than a few bewildering "man moments" in my life, when a man's actions or words (or lack thereof) confused me. But the gentle, quiet woman puts her trust in God in these moments. She keeps listening, asking, sharing, and treading kindly particularly in the areas she cannot understand.

There are lots of questions to ask if you are considering dating, engagement, or marriage. Questions of similarities in viewpoints or theology or plans. But there is never any question of the chain of authority in the marriage relationship: God, then man, then woman. "Should I marry within my gender, or marry another gender?" was also already answered in Eden, no need to ask that again. We all face that same test the first pair faced: will we trust His Word?

Somehow together we reflect His image in a way that we could not have, if we were all one gender. We are "heirs together of the grace of life"—"and that life is in His Son."

This man who pursues my heart and seeks to understand me is like me (in more ways than I can count), but he's also different. And you know what? That's a good thing. Actually, after God surveyed the land, the sea, the sun and the stars, He called them "good". But on the day God formed humankind, "male and female He created them", He declared his work "very good." 

A woman freed from fear is able to quietly trust in His very good design.


"Man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man....Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God." —Paul

March 31, 2014

the expense of worship

If you look at my bulletin board today, you'll see a portrait of charming, impoverished Burmese boy with paint on his skin. I found the image in an old calendar a few weeks ago, and now he smiles silently above my desk. For years, I've posted pictures of international children around my home or office, and donated to child-related causes. I tell myself that I love international children.


But then I remember a recent night. I was hurrying home from doing important-person stuff and a beggar child surprised me by grabbing at my hand in the dark. She wanted change. I didn't stop long enough to pay attentionI brushed her off and was secretly glad that it was time to cross the street anyway....

I guess that's why I came to Asia: to brush off poor local beggar girls, because I'm in a hurry to go home and post pictures of cute kids from Burma.



Recently, my flatmate came home extra-late after a long day at the office. I paused what I was doing, welcomed her home, and offered to heat up the supper that was sitting cold on the table. Then I cut her a dish of cold watermelon chunks (perfect for a day when summer felt closer than ever) and visited with her for a bit (she loves this). I'm nice, right? She thanked me for the watermelon and the visit.

But what she didn't know, was that before the she came home, I had carefully chopped up kiwi, watermelon, pomegranate and banana and tucked them in the back of the fridge. Behind a few other things, where I hoped the flatmates wouldn't notice them. As I chopped my fruit, I thought, "I hope the girls don't come home while I'm chopping this. So that I don't have to share it, and I can save my fruit salad for a few days' lunches...." 

I guess that's why I came to Asia: to hoard my carefully washed and cut fruit, but still make myself look good by chopping up watermelon when the flatmate comes home.



Not long ago, my other flatmate was fasting for one of many religious festivals. During her fast, potatoes were one of the few permissible foods. She wandered into the pantry and asked if she could eat my chips that I had just bought that afternoon. My healthy chips. That I bought and carried home all by myself. From the store directly on my route home from work. (I'm trying to make it sound like it was hard work to acquire them, but it wasn't). I let her have them, and she promised to replace them the next day.

I didn't expect her to replace them, and she didn't, and she still hasn't. The problem is, it bothered me that she didn't return my chips. I found myself thinking things like, "I knew she had no intention of replacing the food she was taking from me. I wanted those chips. She was lazy to not pick up her own food for her fast...." Her fast to the god who sees nothing....

I guess that's why I came to Asia: to hold grudges against gold-god worshipping flatmates because they didn't return my fifty-cent Lite and Fit chips that I didn't need anyway. 




Father, this heart!
Have you seen it?

Can you change it?



In my heart I see Jonah. I put on the show; I go to a far country. "Hey, look at me! Listen to this testimony of how I stopped running away from God! Hey! Pay attention over here, I'm going to do a good work!" I tell someone they're perishing, but when they turn their head and actually show interest in what I'm saying, not only am I surprised (I mean, I didn't really expect them to listen to truth anyway), but I'm busy whining that I can't find a shade tree under which to eat my Lite and Fit chips while they perish.

In my heart I see the prodigal's older brother. No big history of wild living. I think I'm faithful and serving the Father, I have a list of deeds I can show. But when mercy and grace are lavished on the prodigal, I'm not rejoicing. Instead, I'm crossing my arms, furrowing my brow, and wondering where my "good girl reward" is hiding. But my Father sees that I'm keeping the nicer salad for myself or pushing away a beggar child.



At the split between Matthew 5 and 6, I found these convicting words:
"If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? ...And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? ...Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets...to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
God saw more worth in the hearts of the pagan Ninevites, who were cut open by the Word of God, than in the heart of proud, Jewish Jonah. Because He's not looking for religious status or skin colour or upbringingHe looks at the heart. He's looking for true worshippers, who worship in spirit and in truth. And the thing is, what is worshipful coming from one person, might be inauthentic coming from another—He looks at the heart. The difference is broad, between a gift and a sacrificial gift.



I don't want to be Jonah.
I don't want to be the older brother. 
"Love must be sincere," so I want to be like Mary, who "took a pound of very costly oil...anointed the feet of J'esus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil."

Mary teaches me that real worship is costly. Mary gave something of real value. Perhaps my tiny, daily equivalent would be me giving up my fruit salad, that I wanted for me, instead of the watermelon, that was easy to share. Inviting someone over when I don't feel like it, not just when I do. Waking up earlier than is convenient to my flesh, to spend time alone with Him. I was asked a few years ago: "Are you content to offer J'esus that which cost you nothing?" What sort of a gift is that? What kind of worship is that? Love Him lavishly; worship Him expensively. Only you know what that will look like in your life.

I remember some cost, in coming to Asia. I remember bawling on the bumper of my friend's car, telling her how I didn't want to leave her, but I wanted to leave her, all at the same time. I recall reconciling the calendar and the calculator, figuring out when my last biggish paycheques would stop coming. It was sad, to leave my tiny niece and siblings behind. That might have been oil I broke over His feet nearly two years ago (and that oil was worth every penny—He is worthy), but what have I given Him lately? It's easy to stop giving Him gifts that cost, and just give gifts that look like they cost. He looks at the heart.

Mary teaches me that when I give Him gifts that cost me something, others will notice a difference. Because that kind of expensive, generous-toward-God living is as uncommon as breaking perfume worth a year's wages on a Man's dusty feet. I know this: the smell of a life lived as a sacrificial offering will fill the house. It will float into the elevator, and then the office. It will cling to my hair, as I run errands and encounter beggars and talk to flatmates. Half-hearted service is weak; costly worship effects a powerful testimony. 

And I guess that's why I came to Asia: to worship, at any cost.



"You are worthy, our Lord and God, 
to receive glory and honor and power, 
for you created all things, 
and by your will they were created and have their being."  
—The twenty-four elders

March 23, 2014

there is no other

"My friend asked me to pick up this wall hanging for her." It's Thursday and my friend has recently returned from an out-of-town trip. She's wrestling a decoration out of multiple layers of cardboard and packing tape.

Slowly, a brass sun emerges. "Wow!" I commend her choice, "that looks nice!" (I mean, glitzy and gaudy are the name of the game here, so a large brass sun is actually less showy than many decorations I see.)

As she pulls off the last bits of cardboard, I see that the sun has a face and a mustache. I comment, "That's an interesting face, for a wall hanging."

"It's a god that my friend worships. I mean, I worship it, too. You know, every Saturday when I go to the temple. It's the sun god." The words come out so matter-of-factly, as if we're discussing yesterday's weather.

An hour or so later, the dal and spicy eggs are eaten and we're still talking. "My dad is bothering me about getting married. He wants to know when I will marry. He wants me to make a plan for my life."

She looks across the table at me. She has serious eyes—the kind borne by a woman who lost her mother in her preteens. Whose father's job meant transfers around the country every few years. Who has said a lot of goodbyes. Who thinks deeper than it appears at first meeting. Who lives with many fears.

It comes out, "I'm scared to get married." 

I understand, I tell her. It's a big commitment.

And next, "I'm emotional. The smallest things that happen make me have mood swings."

I understand, I tell her. My emotions shift, too.

The conversation moves from marriage, to spouses who fight, to pornography, and back to marriage. It's empty in every corner for her. No wonder she's scared. 



I've thought that I am not one of those "typical" emotional women. It's true that I'm steadier than some. But particularly in the last few weeks, I was feeling unsteady. One day I'd be relatively cheerful, another tearful, and what concerned me the most was that it seemed almost out of my control.

I woke up on Friday with anxiety clutching my heart and I knew my day was starting off poorly again. I'd prayed, I'd asked others to pray, and this time, I'd had enough—enough of these weird mood swings.

I cried out again to the unseen God, the God who created the sun. I told Him how I couldn't understand my emotions. I reminded Him that only He knew why I was in such an upset state. And this time, I insisted. I confessed my sins, and I told Him I needed to hear from Him, because He promises He'll guide us if we are right with Him. I went back to sleep, and woke again a few hours later, with old truth coming to freshly into my mind. I believe He was answering my call to Him.

As the first hours of Friday's daylight began to come through my window, He told me that I have other gods, too. Not brass gods, but people gods. I have been seeking to find my significance, my purpose, and my peace in people. I want my human friends to be able to probe the depths of my soul, to know, love, understand and complete me. I want them to save me from my problems, or give me joy. When they don't, I get frustrated. My emotions rest on their success in pleasing me, so my emotions are constantly jolting.

He told me, "Free your gods, Julie. Let people be people. Appreciate them for what they are, bear with them for what they aren't. The bad news is that they are fallen mini-Mes, and they can only reflect to you broken portions of Me. The good news is that I know your heart, your mind, your emotions like no one else could. I will sustain you."
  
He told me, "I am God and there is no other."
"You shall have no other gods before me."
No brass other on the wall—I've got that down.
No human other in my heart—this, I struggle to learn.
And is there really any difference, whether my god is brass or human?
 
The heavy cloud lifted when I realized all over again that my significance, purpose and peace come only from Him. When I looked up to the God of all, He answered my cry for mercy.



I didn't ask my friend if she went to worship the sun this Saturday, but she usually does. And this Saturday, I worshipped the Son with a new appreciation for His goodness to me. But my friend and I are not so different. We have feelings that aren't rooted in His truth. We have gods we need to lay aside for the Living God. But when I think of her, facing the same problems, but not having the same help from her god, crying out and receiving no answer.... it makes me sad.

No wonder she's scared; no wonder she's sad.
  


It's Sunday morning. We're chopping fresh fruit, and rummaging for the toaster and butter. I tell her my recent story. About my unexplainable tears and moods (I tear up even telling her). About my cry for help on Friday morning. About the peace He gave me in reminding me to have Him as God, and let no other take His place. "He's so steady," I tell her, "People change; He never does."
 
The cantaloupe is tasteless and the toast got too dark, but I hope something in my words makes her hungry. My soul is litmay a few rays shine across the tabletop.



"...An unknown God....this is what I am going to proclaim to you."
"Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should."
Paul

I sought the Lord, and he answered me; 
he delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant;
    their faces are never covered with shame...
 Taste and see that the Lord is good;
    blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.
David 

All the chisels I've dulled carving idols of stone 
that have crumbled like sand 'neath the waves...
You're the only One who's faithful to me.

I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;
    he heard my cry for mercy.
Because he turned his ear to me,
    I will call on him as long as I live.
 David

When I taste Your goodness, I shall not want.
Audrey

February 23, 2014

death and a coconut

When I enter the living room, it smells like death. There's weathered, papery, yellow skin and eyes that betray what no one wants to say: this man is dying.


Die he did. The next time I see his wife, it is at the temple. She's wearing white (the traditional funeral colour) and is somber. We sit cross-legged on the floor, me and a temple full of local people. The funeral director doubles as a musician, and they play a tabla and other instruments. People sing from hymnals, and when there is a break between songs people come and go, pausing before they leave for a small bow to the gods. But what distracts me the most are the coconuts.

Coconuts and pineapples are spread on a table, to be offered to the gods at the front of the temple. Each coconut is topped with some sort of sweet, and specially arranged. All I can think is, "What do coconuts have to do with dying? With souls and life and death?"

These questions distract me until I see my dear friend at the front of the temple, nearest to the multiple deities. The girl with red nail polish, a ready laugh, a sweet smile and five hundred scooter-accident scars from vivacious living. The girl who tickles me and can always round up a crowd for a party. But today she's different, sober, dressed in white, and holds a gift for the god. She has a white strip of cloth around her face, to keep her breath from defiling god. She seems to me a world away from the girl I knew before this moment.

We sit in the temple for nearly an hour, and I'm left alone with my thoughts, because I can't understand the local language and only catch pieces via translation. And ultimately, I can only think one thing: if I'm right, they're all wrong. This whole temple full. This whole neighbourhood full. Almost this whole city full. 

The thought is staggering. 

The musician/religious leader is talking: "Between ages 25 and 50 is your real life. That's the time when you need to do good karma. Do good. Do good." 

When she has the chance, my friend tells us with quiet joy: Grandpa did good. He went fresh. He was clean. Just before he died, he asked to do a worship service to the god. And, she adds with extra zeal, his soul left through his eyes. Our mutual friend fills in some blanks for me: It's one of the best ways to go. If his eyes were open when he died, it's a good sign.

But inside, I know it's a resounding gong, a clanging cymbal, the stuff of earth:

Coconuts.
Birdseed for pigeons.
Water and washing.
Open eyes.
Fasting.
Processions.
Good deeds.

This is earthly, flighty, featherweight.
We need something heavenly, enduring, eternal.

Coconuts may feed a physical body. Water may wash a physical body.
But what can feed and cleanse our spirits?

I wouldn't trust a coconut. 


A certain gravitas comes across me again as I type these sentences. And I told God, help me write this, because people should know. Because, if we're right, they're all wrong. It's simple logic. 

If we believe that, every one of us should be acting. 
If we don't believe that, then are we pretending to believe the rest?

If there's only one way, there's only one way.
If there are more ways,
then "we are of all people most to be pitied."
Because we're giving up "houses, or brothers, or sisters, or mother, or father, or children, or land" for this one way, one truth, one life.

There are millions of people believing in the power of a coconut, a bit of water, a fast, open eyes, a stack of good deeds done during middle age. If you read this, you can't say you didn't know. I don't like to be pushy, but this I will push: what are you doing about it? I push it with myself too: what am I doing about it?


We live in a new part of the city, and they in the old. Sometimes I wonder, how do we bridge the gap? Their roots in this culture are deep. They're offering pineapples to deities in the way their forefathers did, but have 3G in their back pockets. Tradition, family and roots call them loudly, but so does the internet, the bigger outside world, and new conversations.

Watching the world go by from the back of my friend's scooter, I am dodging cows and tucking in my limbs. She shows me a roadside vendor selling wooden stretchers used for cremation. Next, she indicates a man with a fortune-telling parrot. I wonder: how do we start to have new conversations? I try to love and ask good questions, even on the back of a weaving scooter, because I believe that real Love calls loudly, louder than roots or traditions or old stories. And real Love is what everyone is ultimately looking for.

We keep asking questions, keep opening conversations.
Because
until they hear, death will be appeased with a coconut. 
And I don't know about you, but I wouldn't trust a coconut.


 "I hold the keys of Hades and of death..." 
"I am the door."
"Knock, and it will be opened to you." 

But "how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?"

Photo credits to my friends M+C.

February 20, 2014

accidental reflections

There's a two-dollar, two-hour tour offered daily in our city. The walking tour begins just above a colourful temple, when morning prayers are commencing. A projector hums and invariably the guide clicks to a slide with an illustration of a man on a horse. "Sir noticed that near the river, rabbits chased dogs and scared them away. He thought, 'What brave rabbits live here!' And so, he built a city here." Between the guide's thick accent and the din of the bells and chanting below, the story of the founding of our city is a bit difficult to understand. But so begins the tour, which weaves through a few of the 1,600 temples that inhabit the older portion of our city.

If the rabbits used to dominate the dogs here, there must have been a coup d'├ętat, because today dogs scurry around every corner, not rabbits. They come in every size and they tear into garbage cans, ravaging for food. My walk between home and work is a bit a chaotic some days, with thick traffic and swarthy men on mopeds and endless honking and yes, street dogs.

Yesterday evening, as I left work, my sandals collecting sand, my body dodging onlookers and vehicles, one sentence escaped my mind and drifted into His sky: Thank you, God, for this beautiful city. (Sometimes what I pray surprises even me.) I wondered how I could look at that chaos and dirt and think of beauty.

A friend visited recently, and he saw many dirty streets and stray dogs and poor children. My local friends were constantly asking him, "So, what do you think of our country?" He could not speak for the country, but he could speak for our city, and he commented on the delicious meals he had here. But depending on who was asking, sometimes he'd mention how surprised he was at the garbage he sees nearly everywhere here. It clutters and piles and pollutes. It shocked him a little.


As someone who grew up in a third-world city, living in a dirty city again is not so distressing for me. To be honest, I hardly notice it, unless I step in it or smell a stench. But it was interesting to see my city through his eyes: truly, our city is not beautiful, especially to first-world visitors. There are swathes that are nice, if they're gated, guarded and groomed. But in general, the sides of the streets are piles of dust with scarlet trails of spittle. Compacted against the would-be curbs are flyers, food, and feces. The gutters are open or non-existent. Shanty-towns crowd what were open fields. Government housing blocks remind me of a concentration camp: grey with narrow, dank hallways separating one-room dwellings and the omnipresent garbage crunching in the cracks and corners. This is our city. 

And yet I still said, Thank you, God, for this beautiful city.

What makes this city beautiful is that it is full of bearers of the image of true Deity. Most are without a true knowledge of Him, so they reflect Him accidentally. Like a carver's woodwork would bear his trademark grooves by no choice of its own, the people of my city prove the Word true without even meaning to. In their living they bear testimony to the Living One (for "in Him we live and move and have our being").



How do they reflect Him?

They reflect His creativity,
with their patterns, textures, carvings and designs.

They reflect His generosity, 
when they give meals, time and gifts, over and over again.    

They reflect His artistry,
in their dancing, singing, painting and drawing.

They reflect His authenticity,
when offering a fair price after seeing white skin.

They reflect His joy,
with their propensity for parties and affinity for bright colours.

They reflect His relational nature,
when they long for relationship, thrive in relationship, and bring vigour to relationships.



Anyone who has lived abroad, indeed anyone who has lived, must admit that it is people that make a place. The Yukon is stunning, but it's better with a friend to talk to over salmon chowder. Long walks in dusty alleys where anything from dried dung to sheep heads to roosters are for sale...are more fascinating when they are walked with a friend. People (not dogs, litter or pollution) ultimately make a place, beautiful or otherwise. People who reflect—in fallen, less-than-glorious ways—the beautiful image of God.

In this city morning prayers go up from over 1,600 temples. It would be hard to find a local who denies there is a god. But who is He? What is His name? How does He want to be worshiped?

This is my morning prayer, if you will: that the accidental reflections of His beauty that I see here would give way to intentional, redeemed reflections—that are found in right relationship with the true Deity. He is beautiful. Amen.

January 19, 2014

in between, not yet

I'm standing in an almost-ready building.

The walls are rough and unfinished, with drips of paint drizzling down bare cement. On every floor, men are sawing or drilling, or observing as others saw and drill. Women with traditional ear and nose ornaments shuffle by with hand brooms—cleaning up after the men. Beneath me, I see electricians wrangling thick, tangled black wire-snakes on the pavement. The elevators are installed, but still tightly wrapped in green plastic—tools clank as technicians in the gaping elevator shaft tighten the lift and prepare it to carry loads. From the open ends of the building, I can see two-story homes and high-rise apartments stretching endlessly in every direction. 

Words start clumping in my head.


This is our new office building. Or, it will be soon. In the office there's discussion and translation and hand motions and repetition. No, we want it over there. No, just one wall here, not two. More translation. A measurement. A diagram of dreams: This is what it should look like when you're done. It is no small task to get this workspace ready for us.

I head out to pace up the stairs to the next landing, and then back down. There's a comfortable wind that blows through the breezeway, and space for my thoughts, which say something like this: it takes so much physical to live the spiritual.  

None of us are building experts or carpenters or electricians. We don't speak much of the local language; we can't quite understand their culture, try as we might. And inside our chests, we want spiritual work. I can hear it in our voices, feel it in our aches.

But the flesh is sweating and needs air conditioning. The body needs an income, a job, an office. The government requires paperwork. To that end, there are wires to be tied and holes to be drilled and papers to be signed. Hundreds of physical details to take care of...details in which somehow we see 
parables and 
parallels and 
platforms 
for the spiritual.

Pacing in that breezeway, I am distracted by the in between. Life lived in the "not yet" zone. Isn't life full of in betweens? No longer newborn, but not yet toddler. No longer a kid, but not really a responsible adult. No longer just friends, but not yet lovers. But the greatest in between ache is this one: we are saved from the penalty of sin, but not yet saved from its presence. We're given new hearts, but we're still aching for our new bodies. We're told to fix our eyes on heavenly things...yet it takes so much physical to live that spiritual. 

In this quick breath of a life, we'll always be in between.

We are looking for "a better country—a heavenly one." 
But we live in this country. 

We are looking for the city He has prepared for us. 
But we live in this city. 

I'm still in the grey hallway, and somewhere below a young boy is poking the dirt with a stick. Across the street, a man carries a thin plastic bag of milky brown tea to his office. And up here, in between builders and painters and cleaners, I can almost touch the tension of the "not yet". How long, O Lord?



I said that it takes so much physical to live the spiritual. To do spiritual work, many physical prerequisites must also be met. But I could also say that it takes so much spiritual to live the physical aright.

How do we sweat and pour foundations and wipe floors and paint walls...with hope? How do we sign documents and wash dishes and visit the neighbour...with a heart toward eternity? How do we handle the mundane or the tragic or the terrifying...with a heart of contentment?


We can't be spiritual about the physical, unless we "lay aside everything that hinders" and fix our eyes on Him. I'm glad that the writer to the Hebrews admits that sin "so easily entangles", because I know then that he struggled as I do, to not be entangled. Living appropriately in the physical sphere requires a heart that is laying aside sin and pursuing righteousness, and this begins in our inner man, in our spirit.

We lay aside hindrances not only for our sakes, but for the sake of the people who witness us. I have a friend here who asks me questions: What kinds of movies do you watch, and why? What kind of music do you listen to, and why? Would you sleep with your boyfriend? How would you discipline your child? She's watching me. She wants to see if the invisible, spiritual realm that I talk about really influences the visible, physical realm in which we live. She's watching for physical evidence of a spiritual change. I can't consistently, truly produce the physical without the spiritual: It takes so much spiritual to live the physical aright.

So we fix our eyes on Him, and on His diagram: This is what it will look like when you're done.
And we run with perseverance.


The two are inseparable: it takes so much physical to live the spiritual, but yet it also takes so much spiritual to live the physical aright. As Charmichael so accurately stated, "Souls...are more or less securely fastened into bodies." Ours is the task of balancing both; of living rightly in these two different but always-overlapping realms. 


Father, teach us to see in the now
parables and
parallels and
platforms
for what is not yet, for that which lasts forever.
As you know, we're still in between.  

Maranatha. Come quickly!


"God is not ashamed to be called their God, 
for he has prepared a city for them."
Author Unknown, to the Hebrews 

"And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,  
fixing our eyes on J, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. 
For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, 
and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  
Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, 
so that you will not grow weary and lose heart."
Author Unknown, to the Hebrews

"So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.
For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."
Paul

*Photo credits to my friends M&C 

December 31, 2013

a glimpse of God

They fell in love because they liked dancing together. "Not the best reason to marry someone," she admits, "but we did it anyway. We sure loved dancing!"

She waves a wrinkled hand and retells stories from years gone by. When she and her husband reached retirement, she wanted to give herself to important things, like a street-corner truth-sharing, or volunteer work with orphans. But her plans changed when she got stuck caring for her ailing husband, who is eight years her senior. Well, "stuck" is how she felt, until it occurred to her that she wasn't being held back from ministry, this was her ministry—caring for her dance partner. So, care she has.


On the wall in their bedroom three pictures hang: one from their wedding, one from their twenty-fifth anniversary, and one from their fiftieth anniversary. The changes that fifty years wrought on their faces and bodies are dramatic. Now, it's been eight years since that last portrait.

The man she married was a handsome, capable man who took her on cruises to the Far East. The man she's married to today is voiceless and withered, staring up at pictures of cartoons above his bed, contained by a crib-like railing. When he needs her, he squeezes a small squeaky toy.

This is how they're celebrating Christmas: she stays within earshot of the squeak. This is how they're celebrating love.


In the dining room, there's another couple. Well actually, now she's in the kitchen and he's in the entry way greeting guests. But on the dining room wall, they are pictured in a faded 8x10, cracking big smiles only 30 years ago.

They're greyer than 30 years ago, but the wide smiles and happy eyes remain. Tonight he's enthusiastically organizing games; she's managing multiple pots on the stove...and they both make it look so easy. She tells me that they had a family dinner in the afternoon; this evening's Christmas dinner is an "extra" meal. "Just" a meal for about fifteen people who don't have family around this Christmas. Just the way these two do life—they are given to hospitality.

The love I see between these two is demonstrates itself as like-mindedness. He asks for testimonies; she always has one to share. He leads the study; she contributes her insight. He invites a friend over; she makes her famous cake. He brings home the proverbial bacon; she graciously cares for his aging parents. They both glow when they talk about the good news. Their lives are one, split as by a semicolon: two related thoughts, flowing in the same direction, with the same idea in mind. Their love is evidenced by kind interaction and teamwork.

This is how they're celebrating Christmas; with a stirring spoon in one hand, straws for group games in the other. This is how they're celebrating love.


In the living room there are a dozen young adults playing games, laughing, and being extra-friendly. It's easy, when you're young and your skin is tight and your teeth are straight, to look for a love that is all jitters and woo-woo and lightening.

I don't have much to say about the youngsters, because they don't have much history yet. They're exploring. Giggling. Flirting a little. And probably giving no thought to the dining room, or the back room.

This is how the young are celebrating Christmas; smiles and nervous butterflies and glances. This is how they're celebrating love. 


I leave the back bedroom with a certain heaviness, and this is why:
I don't think that kind of love is in me.


Living room love? Yes.
Dining room love? Maybe.
Back room love? No.

What young soul doesn't want the woo-woo of the living room? It's heady; it's fun. It's a gift of God when it's guided by wisdom and truth. But friend, it's the cotton candy version of more enduring love—it's good but you can't live on it.

A young person could even value of the agreeableness of the dining room. Cooking dinner, taking care of the inlaws, steadily performing our duties day-in and day-out. It's a bit boring, but it's the stuff of life: potbellies and three square meals. This dinner, that outing. Haircuts and hassles, cancer and curry. Sunrise, sunset. We can see the value in their faithfulness.

But the door between me and the back room is closed. There's something in me that doesn't want the reality-check of that stubbly jaw or rumpled pajamas,
...where the pictures on the wall show decline,
...where look on his face reminds me that
"death will soon disrobe us all",
...where I see a still-capable wife dying to other dreams.

No, I don't think that back room love is in me.


Slowly, two thoughts come to mind.

First of all, love is of God. I could never conjure it up myself. And this is my hope: He who loves is born of God and knows God. He can produce this love-fruit in me, if I abide in Him. This is a miracle of His grace. That back room love is not in me yet, but He can produce it in me.

Secondly, old, enduring love can only come from people who are old and enduring. I've often wondered at the wisdom of God in making pregnancy a nine-month period. It gives a couple time to adjust, to dream, to plan, to prepare for a new little life. Except for those tabloid-like tales of women who give birth unexpectedly, there's really no such thing as a pregnancy that is still a surprise by the time the baby arrives.

In the same way, God never calls us to be elderly before we have first been young, and then middle-aged. In this I see His wisdom, too. He gives us time to discover what love is, at all its stages. At my age, it's no wonder that back room love seems beyond me. My call is not to serve an old husband, but it is to build a good wisdom-foundation for enduring love. To mediate on what true love looks like. To follow godly older examples.

So that someday, that back room love will be in me, too.


It's Christmas in this house, and the common areas are packed with people. But the real romance is in that back room. When a little squeak sends two loving, ever-available feet pattering over to see what's wrong. When a woman of integrity stands by her promise. When love, which is of God, appears in human fleshhere we catch a glimpse of God.


No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, 
God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. 
—John, in 1 John 4:12  

Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; 
and every one that loves is born of God, and knows God.
 —John, in 1 John 4:7 

"‘Being in love’ first moved them to promise fidelity: 
this quieter love enables them to keep the promise. 
It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run:
being in love was the explosion that started it."
 —C. S. Lewis on Chr!stian Marriage